What are piano octaves? How many octaves on a piano? Why do they matter? How can I learn to play them? Those are all important questions if you’re getting started with how to play beginner piano.
Sometimes when you start a new hobby, you get bogged down in terminology, in information that seems designed for experts rather than newbies like yourself. But don’t worry. You’re not going to find any complicated piano music theory here. I’m all about keeping things as simple as possible. And I’ll explain any piano jargon that pops up along the way.
So without further ado, let’s dig into the topic of octaves on piano and how to play them.
What is the Octave Definition?
Before we can discuss more details about octaves, we need to know what they are. (I know, I’m stating the obvious.)
How many octaves are there on a piano? A piano octave is simply a set of 8 white notes (12 total if you count the black ones that are within that set. These notes technically run from A to G. But for some reason, the inventors of the piano decided to count from C to B. So the notes within each octave go like this: C, D, E, F, G, A, B. The same exact notes, just rearranged so they start at C.
Let’s look at a picture.
Okay, what do you see in this image? Aside from a bunch of notes on a piano, you see from the hand that the two keys that are being played seem to match each other. And you have that exactly right:
Just like each set of 8 white keys is an octave, playing 2 matching notes that are 8 keys apart is how you play an octave. You can pick any note, move 8 keys to the right or left, and press its match. You’re creating a set of note that spans 8 keys. That’s all it takes to play an octave. 🙂
Why Are Octaves Important?
Okay, now you know what is an octave. But why bother? What’s so special about a pianist pressing two notes that have the same name but are just in different locations on your piano?
Technically speaking, you don’t need to play octaves to learn how to play piano. But I really recommend you do, because here’s what they do: They make everything sound better!
When you begin playing more than one key that has the same notes but higher or lower pitch, it instantly adds depth and richness. Your sound, even if you’re only playing at a beginner level technique will immediately improve.
Let’s think about how it sounds when someone is plunking out a tune on the piano, one note at a time. It’s kind of awkward, right? Even if they start playing full chords (complementary groups of notes) in one hand, there’s something missing.
What’s missing? Bass notes. I’m not talking about an actual bass guitar. I’m referring to the lower, deeper sounds that help fill out your sound and give it a nice grounding.
When you play octaves in your left hand, you add in those missing bass notes. Your ears will thank you!
Learning to Play a Piano Octave
The thing is, you can’t just play any ol’ set of octaves and have it automatically sound good. Not unless you’re into experimenting with dissonant sounds! I’d rather avoid that, thank you very much.
So here’s how to play octaves on piano, especially for chord-based playing. You start by looking at the song you want to play. Ideally you’ll pull up chord notation, since that’s simplest. (I explain how in my Piano In 21 Days).
Okay, now you’re looking at the song and seeing what chords on piano you’re going to play. If you are following my piano approach, you already know that you’re going to play those chords in your right hand. What should your left hand be doing?
For each new chord that you see, you’re going to play octaves that match the root note in your left hand. The root note is simply the note the chord is named after.
See a D chord? The root note is D. A G minor chord? The root note is G. An Asus7thdim… okay, I’m making that one up. But if that was a real chord, the root note would be A! 😉
Whatever the root note is, you can play the same exact note farther to the right on your piano. And playing two of the same notes sounds even better. That’s really all it takes to play octaves on a piano.
An Extra Benefit of Octaves
There’s a big benefit to octaves that you might not have thought of. In fact, this benefit comes into play long before you actually play octaves as bass notes!
When you begin to learn how to play piano, one of the first things you should study is the notes themselves. Memorizing the notes and which keys they correspond will have a huge impact on your success. Sadly, so many people reach out to me each week telling me they never really learned the notes. Some of them have had literally years of traditional piano instruction, and they don’t know their piano notes?
I think that’s because they haven’t been taught to break down the keys into the smallest groups possible. Simply put, they are looking at 88 keys, are told they need to memorize them, and it feels overwhelming.
There are only 12 notes on piano you actually need to learn. They repeat themselves over and over across your instrument, and the only real difference is that they sound higher or lower depending on your position. So that means, amid all 88 keys, you just need to know 12.
Eight white keys plus 4 black keys equals 12 keys. So what is that group of 12 keys you need to learn? It’s what is an octave.
If you can memorize the months of the year, you can memorize the notes within one octave. And once you know that, that you know every single note on your instrument!
What if You Can’t Reach?
Before moving forward, I need to acknowledge something. Not everyone has the same sized hands. That means not everyone can reach as far as they play.
Sometimes I get questions from people whose smaller-than-average hand size has them worried. “Jacques, how am I supposed to add in bass notes if I can’t reach across a full octave?”
No big deal. While it would be nice to span a full octave, it’s not necessary to add in some nice bass accents and enrich your sound. Here are some of your options:
- You can play only one of the two bass notes.
- You can alternate between the two notes.
- (Advanced) You can play one note matched to the root note plus a different note matching other notes in the chord.
Just because you might have smaller hands doesn’t mean you can’t still create some nice added depth and nuance as you start with how to learn piano!
Adding Impact by Switching Octaves
Let’s talk about another way that understanding octaves can benefit you. Improvisation.
I’m a big fan of chord-based playing with piano improvisation, and let me tell you: Switching a piano octave is one of the simplest ways to do that. When you change octaves during a song, it can create all sorts of awesome effect on your sound.
Depending on whether you move lower or higher – and what part of the song you switch for – there are all sorts of possibilities. You can add drama, or release tension. Or you can build to a more emotional climax, or create an effect of peaceful resolution. You can even make your audience pay more careful attention to certain lyrics if you want to! That’s the power of switching octaves.
How do you do it? Simple: Just move a section of chords or bass notes up or down on your keyboard. Keep your fingers in the same positions, press the same notes, just at lower or higher places. That’s it! It works on all piano chords or individual notes, whether you know how to play piano by ear or not. A simple, powerful improvisation tool.
What Comes Next
Now you know all the most important things you need to know about playing piano octaves as you learn piano. What comes next?
Practice, of course, (What did you really expect me to say?) Pick some piano songs for beginners. Then go ahead, try finding octave notes and playing them along with chords. Then if you’re up to the challenge, give switching octaves a try. I think you’re going to really enjoy how much bass notes and octave switching impacts your sound when you play.
And if you feel like you need a bit more info on notes, chords, and improv, check out my free 5-day workbook. Thousands of people have already tried it and found it helpful! It’s your turn. 😉